Orange is the New Green: The Environmental Justice Implications of Trump’s EPA

This post is part of a series on the possible impacts of Trump’s election on a variety of social justice issues. Click here to read more.

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by Jordan E. Mazurek*

Let’s start by ripping that big orange band-aid off. This piece will not make you hopeful. The environmental justice movement—that is, the grassroots movement championed by people of color and the poor to address the environmental harms they are disproportionately victims of—is going to face significant challenges under Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency in particular, and his administration more broadly. Trump’s nomination to head the EPA, Scott Pruitt, is a global-warming-denying, Big-Oil-loving Oklahoma attorney general who’s made his name off leading the conservative crusade against the EPA and the Obama administration’s environmental policies. Meanwhile Trump’s wider cabinet seems to consist of a Who’s Who of the “Eco-Villains” that Captain Planet fought in the 1990s (not to mention the 1%-ers!).

Faced with such a cabinet, I think we as organizers, activists, and academics must prepare for an almost certain intensification in three key areas across-the-board:

  1. An intensification of what Barnett (1994) describes as “regulatory capture,” or the domination of regulatory agencies by the very industries they are supposed to be regulating. This directly contributes to:
  2. An intensification in the deregulation of private industries and defunding of monitoring agencies. This further exacerbates:
  3. An intensification of the types of harms to communities of color and the poor inherent in historical patterns of racialized capitalism.

I use the term intensification to convey that these are not new conditions coming to bear down under Trump, but merely extensions of preexisting ones. For the sake of space, however, I will limit my analysis to how environmental justice will likely be affected by this intensification in relation to Pruitt’s EPA.

In terms of regulatory capture, the EPA has a long and sordid history of representing and defending the interests of corporate polluters, rather than regulating them; an arrangement that, at the time of writing, Simon (2000, pp. 641–42) found to pay off nicely for “20 high-ranking former EPA administrators that … left the agency [to] become millionaire waste-industry executives.” It is beyond reasonable to hope that Pruitt’s EPA will be much different in tendency given his already well-established capacity for developing secret alliances with oil and gas companies and then serving as literal mouthpieces for them, as revealed by the New York Times in 2014.

Given his cozy relationship with Big Oil and Pruitt’s track record of attacking EPA regulations, which amounted to at least 13 lawsuits against the agency to date with eight still pending, the deregulation or active non-enforcement of existing environmental policy is all but imminent. Let’s first focus on federal environmental justice policy.

The policy ground upon which the EPA and other federal agencies incorporate and address environmental justice concerns remains exceptionally vulnerable. This vulnerability is a consequence of the fact that federal environmental justice policy is based not on congressional law but on Presidential Executive Order 12898, signed by Clinton in 1994 in response to mounting pressures from environmental justice activists. EO 12898 mandated that “each Federal agency make achieving environmental justice part of its mission by identifying and addressing, as appropriate, disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies, and activities on minority populations and low-income populations,” with this effort to be spearheaded by the EPA.

As is often the case with policy that may positively affect people of color, little tangible progress on addressing environmental justice issues at the federal level manifested itself. For the remainder of Clinton’s presidency, the EPA had little direction on how to actually implement EO 12898, and since it remained only an EO, no following administrations or agency heads were under any legal mandate to actually pursue environmental justice objectives. George W. Bush’s administration took full advantage of this to actively shift the EPA’s focus on “environmental justice” away from minorities and the poor and to essentially ignore the topic for eight years.

Indeed, towards the end of Bush’s administration the United Church of Christ published a 20-year follow-up study on its foundational environmental justice study Toxic Wastes and Race in the United States. The conclusions, after 20 years and EO 12898, remained largely the same: race remained the predominant predictor of where hazardous waste sites would be located, with little to no tangible progress having been made. Neighborhoods hosting hazardous waste facilities were found to be “56% people of color whereas non-host areas are 30% people of color”; meanwhile, 69% of the population living in areas with close clusters of hazardous was of color (Bullard et al. 2007, pp. x–xi).

The Obama administration represented a significant departure from the previous two administrations in terms of making environmental justice an agency priority within the EPA. Under the leadership of Lisa Jackson, in 2010 the agency began developing its first systematic attempt, known as Plan EJ 2014, to incorporate the environmental justice requirements of EO 12898. This effort was greatly expanded with the development and publication of its EJ 2020 Action Agenda in late October of 2016. EJ 2020 is a robust strategic plan leading up to an EPA in 2020 “that integrates environmental justice into everything we do, cultivates strong partnerships to improve on-the-ground results, and charts a path forward for achieving better environmental outcomes and reducing disparities in the nation’s most overburdened communities.” (I would be amiss, in terms of my current organizing efforts with the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons, if I did not point out that the EJ 2020 plan completely ignores prisoners as a potentially “overburdened” population worth of environmental justice consideration. This was challenged by the campaign under the banner of the Prison Ecology Project and over 130 other social justice, environmental, and prisoner’s rights organizations that mobilized to influence the drafting of EJ 2020).

Considering that the EJ 2020 plan will just start to take effect as Trump steps into office and Pruitt takes the reins of the EPA, I’m highly skeptical that the agency will meet any of its 2020 goals. Perhaps the best-case scenario for existing environmental justice policy would be if the Trump administration followed in the footsteps of George W. Bush’s administration, that is, if the administration more or less ignored those goals but let the legislation in place for future, possibly friendlier administrations. Given that all the EPA’s environmental justice efforts still rely primarily on EO 12898, however, the worst-case scenario seems likely. Trump could issue an alternate Executive Order overriding EO 12898 and thus completely dismantling, instead of just delaying, what took the entirety of the Obama administration to implement, effectively cutting environmental justice out of the scope of the federal government.

Let’s not forget, however, that since 1994 federal environmental justice policy has remained largely symbolic. That is to say that, although the EPA will certainly be no ally of the environmental justice movement under Trump, this agency has failed under every administration to systematically address the structural causes of environmental injustice. Indeed, at the time of this writing it’s been 21 months since (in April 2015) the EPA Region 5 office became aware of the high lead levels in the Flint, Michigan water supply, poisoning the majority-Black population. Yet the EPA failed to take action until January 2016. Flint STILL has lead in its water. This crisis was precipitated by multiple structural factors, including a history of weak environmental regulation of the local automotive industry, local economic hardships wrought by neoliberal economic policy in the 1990s (i.e., NAFTA), and increasing levels of government defunding. Indeed, from 2010 to 2015 the EPA faced five straight years of budget reductions, losing 21% of its federal funding ($2.2 billion USD) and bringing the number of staff down to its lowest levels since 1989.

These budget cuts to the EPA under the EPA/environmental justice-friendly Obama administration (granted, lead by Republicans) point to what could possibly be the worst-worst-case scenario: that is, the possibility that Trump will hold true to his campaign promises of completely eliminating the EPA, effectively leading to total environmental deregulation at a federal level.

The harms environmental justice activists fight against are inherently spatial and direct consequence of a segregationist racialized capitalism. Pollution, like power, tends to harm the populations deemed most easily exploitable and most readily expendable. Faced with almost total deregulation, whatever little protections communities of color and the poor have built up against the sources of hazardous toxins in their neighborhoods may begin to crumble. The first casualties will most likely be the federal-level victories that grassroots environmental justice activists have achieved only in the last couple years of the Obama administration. For example, activists with the Environmental Justice Leadership Forum on Climate Change were responsible for significant changes to Obama’s Clean Power Plan in terms of protecting air quality for poor and minority communities. However, Trump has vowed to kill the Clean Power Plan, and one of the pending lawsuits that Pruitt is still involved in is a 27-state suit against the Plan. Given Pruitt’s already stated affinity with the oil and gas industry, the recent environmental justice victory of more stringent EPA regulations on petroleum refinery emissions (expected to lower cancer rates for 1.4 million people) will also likely be on the chopping block. In short, Pruitt’s EPA and related deregulation will lead to an intensification of environmental harms in poor communities and communities of color.

I know that all sounds a bit doom-and-gloom, but I warned you, didn’t I? If you want hope, looking from the top-down isn’t the place to find it. The strength and resiliency of the environmental justice movement, and the ability of communities of color and the poor to force governmental structures to meet their needs over corporate interest, have always derived from the bottom-up. Look to the roots, get involved, and I look forward to meeting ya’ll in the streets!

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References and Further Readings
Brook, D. 1998. Environmental genocide: Native Americans and Toxic Waste. American Journal of Economics and Sociology 57(1): 105–13.
Bullard, R.D., Mohai, P., Saha, R. & B. Wright. 2007. Toxic Wastes and Race at Twenty: 1987-2007. New York: United Church of Christ.
Commission for Racial Justice. 1987. Toxic Waste and Race in the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socioeconomic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites. New York: United Church of Christ.
Friedrichs, D.O. 2006. Trusted Criminals: White Collar Crime in Contemporary Society. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Kolinsky, D., ed. 2015. Failed Promises: Evaluating the Federal Government’s Response to Environmental Justice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Pinderhughes, R. 1996. The Impact of Race on Environmental Quality: An Empirical and Theoretical Discussion. Sociological Perspectives, 39(2): 231–48.
Rebovich, D.J. 1992. Dangerous Ground: The World of Hazardous Waste Crime. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction.
Saha, R. & P. Mohai. 2005. Historical Context and Hazardous Waste Facility Siting: Understanding Temporal Patterns in Michigan. Social Problems 52(4): 618–48.
Simon, D.R. 2000. Corporate environmental crimes and social inequality: New directions for environmental justice research. American Behavioral Scientist 43(4): 633–45.
Szasz, A. 1986. The process and significance of political scandals: A comparison of Watergate and the “Sewergate” episode at the Environmental Protection Agency. Social Problems 33: 200–17.

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*Jordan E. Mazurek is an Erasmus+: Erasmus Mundus Joint Doctoral Fellow pursuing a Doctorate in Cultural and Global Criminology from the University of Kent and the University of Hamburg. His research interests include prison abolition, green criminology, organizing/activism, visual theory, and the photodocumentary tradition. His work can be seen in The Routledge International Handbook of Visual Criminology, The Palgrave Handbook of Prison Tourism, and The Palgrave International Handbook of Animal Abuse Studies. He currently serves on the Steering Committee of the Campaign to Fight Toxic Prisons.

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